Normal

When most everything feels so abnormal and foreign to us right now, it’s okay to feel it and at least to normalize the feelings. We’ve never been here before, collectively. The adrenaline of new information and new risk is wearing off as we settle into our shelter-in-place lifestyles. The novelty of using Zoom, Discord, FaceTime, and any video calling service is wearing off. And our bodies are finally starting to catch up with our racing minds.

For two or three weeks now, all we hear about, all we think about, maybe all we talk about is the coronavirus and what impact it will have on us. And our bodies didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for it. Personally, I’m experiencing greater levels of fatigue and sleepiness throughout my days than I ever have before in my former, office-working life. My body is teaching me what it’s like to mitigate risk by running marathons, not sprints.

So if you’re starting to feel the adrenaline buzz wear off, the novelty is just not so novel anymore, and you’re missing the old life, it’s normal to feel that. We all lost something, albeit temporarily, so abruptly that we went into fight-flight-freeze mode to get through the immediate danger, and now we’re realizing that the enemy moves much slower, but can run much longer too. We are feeling the adjustment as we shift into road trip mode instead of drag strip mode. Allow yourself all the grace you need and know that it’s normal.

We’ve never been here before. It’s totally normal to feel anxious and worried.

Some of us have never been homeschool parents. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed and stretched thin.

Some of us have never worked from home. It’s totally normal to struggle with focus and feel like your work and home are too close.

Some of us have never been without work. It’s totally normal to feel angry and afraid of how you will provide for yourself and family.

Some of us have never stayed in one place for so long. It’s totally normal to feel restless and confined.

Some of us have never been alone for so long. It’s totally normal to feel a need for human touch and affection.

It’s totally normal to feel exactly what you are feeling.

Yes, beloved, it’s totally normal and I hope you can rest in that. Thank your body for taking care of you so well.

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

Shattered

This week began like any other. My alarm got me out of bed at 0445 am. I was dressed for the gym and finished my journal entry for the morning by 0515 am. I got a great workout in on the spin bike. I finished my workout and my shower and left the gym to get to work. As I approached my car beneath the street light, my first thought was “oh that’s weird, why did my passenger window frost over like that? And my other windows have no frost at all?” Then my brain finally put together the fact that I was looking directly inside my vehicle through a broken window. I stood there blinking at it for a moment, dumbly dazed, before it occurred to me that my messenger bag was missing from the seat where I had left it. My brain was moving so slowly through each logical step; it had no categories in which to sort what it was taking in. My window was broken, bag stolen, property and domain violated.

It all felt like a moment of divine comedy. As I quietly snapped pictures of the scene for the police and searched the surrounding area to see if that bag had been ditched, the irony was not lost on me that I had written about unfortunate circumstances like this recently in B27. “This just is. Do you want to stay mad about these circumstances largely out of your control?” I arranged to come in late to work, checked insurance information, vacuumed out the shattered safety glass from my seats, and made a quick appointment to get the window fixed at the shop.

Throughout the process, I was honestly surprised by the relaxed equanimity in my response to the unfolding morning. (If that sounds like bragging, it’s because it probably is.) I never felt a flash of rage or anger. I never lost my temper and threw a tantrum about “the injustice!” Being an Enneagram 1, my relationship with anger tends to manifest more as quiet bitterness and resentment with sudden, yet seldom, bursts. But not here, not this time. Not even resentment came out to play.

Don’t get me wrong, I was and am certainly confused, perplexed, disappointed. Mostly just releasing a long sigh with “why?” somewhere there in the wind. What a petty and childish way to get what you want and don’t have. These kinds of thoughts have visited too, but I’ve mostly been debriefing on a few items I’ve learned and realized as a result.

First, I am so glad that Dixie and I found the wisdom and the willpower to begin our minimalist journey a few years ago. My relationship to things has changed and grown so much that it was easy, even in the moment, to recognize and tell myself that all things like this are replaceable. Yes, the bag had some sentimental value, being a gift from my dad one Christmas in high school. And yes, the notebook I had tucked in there had ideas and items that I hadn’t transferred yet to my Evernote. But they are ultimately just things. The bag was a daily reminder of the fantastic relationship my father and I have built following some rough years in high school. I lost the bag, but certainly not the relationship. The notebook had good ideas in it, but if the idea really was worth keeping track of, it’ll return in it’s time. We love people and use things, because the opposite never works.

Second, I am so grateful for the lessons in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. It was because of this program that the financial cost to replace the window was a non-concern. Even if we were working on getting out of debt still, Baby Step 1 is to save $1,000. It is precisely for out-of-the-blue moments like these that this starter emergency fund exists. Thankfully, we paid our debt off completely back in October of 2019, so our emergency fund is much larger in Baby Step 3 as we work to fully fund that account. It was such a weight off our shoulders to know we’d be financially covered and that we would easily recover from the setback.

Finally, I’ve learned in the aftermath that I can be proud of the inner work I’ve done with myself to grow in equanimity, serenity, and forgiveness. I found myself praying throughout the day that they at least enjoyed my lunch. I even posted what I thought to be a pretty funny Instagram story that read, “To the person who stole my bag this morning, I hope you are as perplexed by my collection of Rubix cubes as I was perplexed by my broken window.” Cheeky, I thought. I really am happy with how my instincts have shifted in response to sudden difficulties like this. I have been stolen from twice before, and I can promise I did not respond this well in the past. Funny how the story of my young adulthood is told in stories like these, and not just all the good times.

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

B27

I had to spend the night at Gate B27.

Ever have one of those weeks that just feels like the whole thing is conspiring against you? What can go wrong will go wrong. You might as well stretch some bedding out on the couch, move some pillows, and dig up a spare blanket, because your old college buddy, Murphy, is going to stay a while. Dixie and I just had one of those weeks.

I don’t want to really bait and switch you here. I’m not asking for a bunch of comments and messages asking if we’re okay. We are. But the situations that have arisen recently aren’t far enough in the past for me to really reflect on teachable moments or deep insights. Our temporal proximity to ground zero is very close, and the dust hasn’t quite settled. We’re healthy, we’re safe. We’re just emotionally rattled.

However, recently, I do have a recurring memory, reminding me of the time that I spent a whole night trying to get some sleep on the grey, office carpet of Gate B27 in the Denver International Airport. I was on my first business trip out of the state, flying to Wisconsin for work at a couple gas terminals. This was not my first trip of this nature for the summer project, but it was the first and only that required detailed travel plans like flights and rental cars.

The itinerary was as follows: Fly from Montana to Denver for a short dinnertime layover. Fly from Denver to Minneapolis. Pick up rental car and go for a 3 hour nighttime drive to the hotel. Get 7 hours of sleep before reporting fresh to work.

It was an excellent plan if I do say so myself. Maximum efficiency. But context clues have probably shown you the major flaw: delays. My first flight was late by about an hour in arriving to Montana, causing my short dinnertime layover to shrink to about 20 minutes. Okay, doable, but cutting it close. Then! Then, our aircraft is directed into a holding pattern above Denver due to a large amount of traffic. My 20 minute window becomes 15, then 10, then 2. I believe I watched my Minnesota bound plane takeoff without me from the supreme comfort of my upright, tray-table forbidden seat, thousands of feet in the air.

Okay, connection missed. Do I want to stay mad about it? First, I confirm on my airline app that my bag is set aside, to discover that I’ve been automatically booked for the next, soonest available flight that takes off at 0700 the next morning. It is 2145 now. At least my flight is booked, bag secured. Check. Win for systems and customer service. I call the car rental company to let them know I will be about 14 hours late. Check. Win for tech and communication. Now for some dinner. I wander the B concourse for so long trying to make a dinner choice, that they all close except for McDonald’s. I approach the McDonald’s counter as the sharp-suited business man ahead of me finishes his order and just as the employee puts up the “closed” sign. That employee walks off, and the look of dumb bewilderment that involuntarily twisted my face must have made her feel some degree of sympathy and pity, because an angel of McDonald’s moves the sign, and takes my hurried and thankful order with a smile. She was willing to take the ire and anger of her coworkers having to create one more order, of which she took much, visually and audibly. I tipped her personally and privately for stepping in like that. Win for humanity.

So the details are worked out, a mostly satisfying meal has begun the digestive process, and then it dawns on me, “I think I have to sleep here tonight.” I was taking each detail in stride and as they arose in importance, I lost sight of the big picture. DIA might just be my overlarge, overpriced bedroom for the night. I called my wife up home to give her the news. I search for a customer service desk for my airline to look into vouchers and hotels. All the desks have now been vacated. They’ve gone home. I’ve missed that window too. I find my next flight on the monitor and meander my way down to Gate B27.

The story basically ends there. I eventually take off in the morning, get the car, make the drive, and start work right away. I slept for about 13 hours after leaving work. Back at the airport and in the timeline, I stuffed my laundry bag with clean clothes for a pillow, wrapped my bag straps around my legs, scooted under a row of chairs, headphones in, phone charging and gripped tightly, and tried to sleep. If you’ve ever tried this, you know how futile my attempt to sleep really was. I’m on carpeted concrete, no padding, no insulation, no darkness, no comfort. And it turns out, an airport really never sleeps! Lights stay on, cleaning crews sweep the area in trained formation, red eye customers walking and talking, gate and departure announcements over the intercom, planes and trucks still constantly moving outside in the tarmac.

I really can’t tell why this memory is popping up this week, amidst today’s struggles and questions. As if the present didn’t need my full attention. But I can remember an odd peace, not resignation, but acceptance throughout my fitful night in the airport. I remember sitting at B27 and thinking, “This air travel system is incredibly complex. There are bound to be some glitches. This just is.”

Maybe that’s what my past is trying to remind my present? This just is. Do you want to stay mad about these circumstances largely out of your control? Does it benefit anyone for you to yell at the closing McDonalds employee? Can you celebrate and be inspired by the systems that put you and your bag on the next flight? Can you be grateful and generous with the woman willing to serve you dinner after closing time? Can you enjoy the extra time to read and listen to podcasts? This just is.

Between every stimulus and response, there is a choice. That’s what I’m teaching me this week. Anakephalaiosasthai. So let me revise my opening line:

I had got to spend the night at Gate B27.

Cat

I recently allowed a cat under my roof. And I’ve made an agreement with this little ball of feline fur, that as long as she knows I’m the pride male and get to set boundaries based on where the photons emitted by our star’s nuclear fusion reaction make impact with our apartment’s interior*, then she and I can be friends in a mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, she’s an indoor cat. And being an indoor cat, we’ve been learning to share living space together.

As with any new addition to a household or family, once the initial “aw cute!” phase wears off, there is a trove full of lessons to be learned as we begin to adjust to each other. I believe that life is so much more interesting if I assume that everyone and everything can be my teacher, so I ought to be open to wisdom in whatever form it is packaged as a humble student. So in no particular order, I’ve been collecting some observations that Dinah, the cat, has helped me recognize and put into words.

  • Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary. When my wife and I first began the process of adopting Dinah, we thought we would like to rename her Pudding. There was no particular reason why, beyond we liked how cute the name Pudding is. But on her first day in our apartment while she was doing her initial exploration, we learned that she actually recognized the name Dinah and responded by looking up at us and coming toward our outstretched hand. So she was never Pudding to us, she will always be Dinah. — I identify as some sort of Christian outside of American evangelicalism, call is more progressive or liberal Christianity maybe. And I’ve noticed within this particular movement, there is an interesting aversion to holding onto the traditionally used and accepted metaphors for God, such as God the Father. I’ve read and heard many critiques of “father” being overly patriarchal and misogynist, thereby we must wholesale reject that metaphor for God the Mother, All-Spirit, or Creator. All are metaphors that add and enrich my own conception of God, but I’m not so sure we need to throw out the Father because it makes some uncomfortable. Especially when literal millennia of the Church has operated under the baptism of our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary.
  • Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love. If you have a pet, you know that your pet is named something, and then there are the bastardizations of that name ad infinitum. Unfortunately, many of them for me quickly devolved into blatant insults toward the cat. So even disguised as a joke, calling my cat ugly names became my habit whenever I was feeling annoyed with her or chastising her for breaking our terms of agreement. This habit painfully revealed itself to me when I was attending to my two year old niece recently at dinner, my human niece (to be 100% clear, not my cat), who was trying to stand up in her high chair, and I accidentally slipped one of the many ugly names I’ve called my cat as I was trying to get my niece to cooperate with fun Uncle Stephen. At that moment, I knew I had to change that habit immediately. Even as a joke, I never want my niece or my own future children to be torn down by an ugly habit like name calling, especially from their uncle or father. And neither will my cat hear such things again, because habits do not discriminate, positive or negative. Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love.
  • Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce when they are breached. My one primary rule for Dinah is that she does not get to walk where human food is stored, prepared, and served. Cabinets, countertops, sink and table are strictly off limits. We quickly established this upon her arrival, by her being abruptly launched in an upward, airborne trajectory when she first explored the space. I did not intend to harm in the slightest, but we established that boundary early and forcefully. And we agree on it now. Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce.
  • Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity? Along with dealing with spacial boundaries, we’re finding that it’s a training and adaptation to get her to sharpen her claws on the designated spots instead of the back corner of my favorite chair. I understand that cats engage this ritual to simultaneously trim and sharpen their ever growing claws, and that perhaps, this offers me a chance to check in with my own sharpening practices? Do I exercise enough? Do I read and write enough to challenge my own preconceived notions? Do I have stimulating conversations on those ideas that I read and write? Do I allow pushback and critique from trusted mentors, partners and friends? Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity?
  • A little mess is all part of it. A house that’s ready at a moment’s notice for that perfect Instagram shot is just not a realistic expectation. Perfect order is a neurotic utopia, which is hard for someone like me to hear and know. A little foreign smell, a little free floating cat hair is just part of my life now, teaching me to know that a little mess is all part of it.
  • With the proper degree of openness, I can learn from anyone and anything. Life is most interesting to me when my default stance is that everyone is my teacher. And I’ve quickly realized that this cat will spend her entire life running me through doctorate level studies in patience. My cat enjoys two things, food and attention. Both of which she is not shy about asking for, loudly… at 0430 in the morning. Pet owners can relate to that moment when your pet makes it crystal clear that you haven’t fed them in, let’s say, the last 20 minutes. They either lightly paw at the food box and meow to win your pity and affection, or they glare at you from behind a dark corner with that look in their eye that can only come from behind the yellow eyes of an ancient, instinctual, only slightly domesticated predator. And this can really get on my nerves, which is slowly revealing to me that my patience wears thinnest where any unplanned inconvenience threatens my own agenda. I can learn from anyone and anything with the proper degree of openness.
  • Curiosity is natural to the cat, while I am actively retraining myself in it. Curiosity could certainly eventually kill the cat, I totally get the cliche now. She is often looking into closets when we have them open, crawling under the couch, exploring window sills and desks, she is even learning how to pry open the bottom kitchen cabinets to get a peak. At first, this frustrated me. “There is nothing interesting here for you.” – Said the human, uninterested in the contents of a cabinet, to the creature that can find endless enjoyment inside a cardboard box. For her, every corner, door, and surface is potentially her new favorite place to hide, nap, or groom. That natural curiosity is expected and should never be discouraged, in fact, I am actively retraining myself in curiosity because of her.
  • Adapting to a cat in the house is teaching me to use a slower pace and practice greater body awareness. When she’s looking for attention, she likes to nuzzle against our calves and ankles, which is usually never an issue if we are sitting down to read or watch a movie, but if we’re strolling into the kitchen at night for a drink of water, this fun habit of hers becomes dangerous to us both. Me, at risk of tripping, her at risk of flattening. She’s inadvertently teaching me to practice mindfulness in all my limbs, simply noticing the feel of the floor and the light brush of fur on my ankles. In addition, I’ve realized that I just need to be slowing down more often to give her a kind petting, scratch between the ears, or a playful belly rub.
  • Cats are worth petting just by the fact that they are cute, soft, and enjoy it, probably more than you enjoy petting them. I’ll just leave this quick quote from Jordan Peterson’s rule 12 of his monstrously popular 12 Rules for Life book: “Cats are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves… Maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. [So] pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

*(“Everything the light touches, is our kingdom”… Lion King quote for those playing along at home)